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While an Islamist alternative still remains unacceptable to most Palestinians,

the Islamists, notably Hamas, increasingly have become a . . . part of the

Palestinian political landscape; as such, they will need to be incorporated
intonot marginalized fromany future political arrangement. Despite its militant extremism, the Islamist movement has shown that it can be pragmatic.

Hamas and the Transformation(s)

of Political Islam in Palestine

occupier. This shift, by the admission of the Islamist

leadership itself, reflected the successful weakening
by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) of the
Islamic political sector and the defeat of its military
wing. The thrust toward the social was not simply a
return to old forms of social service provision commonly associated with the Islamic movement, but
included entry into new areas of community and
development work that pointed to an emerging new
logic between state and society.2
The Al Aqsa Intifada, which began in September
2000 in response to seven years of a peace process
that not only deepened Palestinian dispossession
and deprivation but strengthened Israels occupation, reversed the dramatic changes within the
Islamic movement. The militarization of the uprising by Fatah, the dominant (secular) nationalist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO),
effectively sidelined the role of civil societyincluding secular and Islamic institutionsin the struggle
to end Israeli occupation. This contributed to the
reascendance of the political-military sector as the
defining and authoritative component within the
Islamic movement. Israels increasingly brutal and
continued assault against Palestinian society and the
Palestinian economy and the deliberate destruction
of its civic institutions have only strengthened the
embrace of the military option by Palestinians,
including the Islamists. Despite this, the social core
of the Islamic movement remains strong and has
become an increasingly important part of the Palestinian social welfare system as unemployment and
poverty have grown and the PAs capacity to deliver
even the most basic services has diminished.
Relatively little has been written about the main
political and social transformations in the Islamic

ts over for this generation of Islamic activists.

We tried and failed, but time is on our side. We
must plant the seeds for an Islamic future in the
next generation through social change. We must
alter the mindset and mentality of people through
an Islamic value system. We must do this through
example and education. We must do it quietly and
with persistence.
A senior official in Hamas made this comment to
me in 1999, which described without question the
thinking of many key figures in the Islamic political
leadership in Gaza and the West Bank before the start
of the current uprising. In the five years that preceded the recent unrest, the Islamistsparticularly
Hamas, the largest political faction in the Palestinian
Islamic movementwere clearly undergoing a process of deradicalization and searching for political
and social accommodation within the status quo of
Palestinian society.1 There was a pronounced shift in
emphasis within the movement away from politicalmilitary action to social-cultural reform; political violence was slowly but steadily being abandoned as a
form of resistance and as a strategy for defeating the
SARA ROY is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle
Eastern Studies, Harvard University, and the author of the forthcoming monograph Political Islam in Palestine: From Extremism to Civism? This essay is part of a larger project supported by
a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
1Islamic movement refers not only to that movements
political sector, in which Hamas predominates, but to its
social, cultural, and religious sectors that may or may not
have direct links to the political; Islamist movement refers
to the Islamic political sector in Palestine.
2See Sara Roy, The Transformation of Islamic NGOs in
Palestine, Middle East Report, Spring 2000, in which some
of the findings described herein were first presented.


14 CURRENT HISTORY January 2003

movement both before and since the current uprising.3 While certain key dynamics within the
movement (engaging in patterns of social accommodation) have remained relatively unchanged, others (the strengtheningand dominanceof the PA,
and the weakening and silencing of the Islamists)
are being replaced with altogether new dynamics
that portend equally damaging consequences for
Palestinian society and for a political resolution to
the PalestinianIsraeli conflict.



Hamasan acronym for the Islamic Resistance
Movementwas born with the first Palestinian
uprising or Intifada, which began in December
1987. The birth of this organization represented the
Palestinian embodiment of political Islam in the
Middle East. Hamass evolution and influence were
primarily outgrowths of the first Intifada and the
ways in which Hamas participated in the uprising:
through the operations of its military wing, the work
of its political leadership, and its social activities.
Hamass goalsa nationalist position couched in
religious discourseare articulated in Hamass key
documents: a charter, political memoranda, and
communiqus. Some of these documents are undeniably racist and dogmatic, calling for the liberation
of Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan
River. Yet, later documentation, particularly since
the mid-1990s, is less doctrinaire and depicts the
struggle as a form of resistance to an occupying
poweras a struggle over land and its usurpation,
and over how to end the occupation. Recent statements by key Hamas officials maintain that their
goals are Israels withdrawal from lands occupied in
the 1967 war, the end of Israeli occupation, the
establishment of a Palestinian state, and a solution
to the refugee issue. According to a senior political
official, If these things are implemented, the Palestinians will be satisfied, and they will be busy for
more than 20 years building their state.4
During the years of the Oslo peace process (from
September 1993 to September 2000), the political
and military sectors of the Islamic movement in
which Hamas predominated were substantively
weakened by a combination of factors. Most significant was the sustained intense pressurearrests,
imprisonment, executionimposed by Israel and
3This essay will focus only on Hamas, since it is the largest
and most influential of the Islamist parties.
4See Interviews from Gaza, Middle East Policy, December
2002, p. 109.

the PA, which weakened the organization from

within. In addition, these pressures were imposed
on Islamic social institutions, the so-called terrorist infrastructure, which resulted in the closing of
many charitable societies (although some later
reopened). Palestinian Authority President Yasir
Arafat thus did a great deal to promote Israels policy objectives. Not only did he undermine Islamist
organizations (notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad,
another prominent Palestinian Islamist faction), he
weakened Palestinian civil society and the Palestinian/PLO leadership structure. Supporters of the
Oslo process termed this liberalizationone that
not only preceded democracy, but precluded it.
Another critical factor was the Palestinian population itself. As the mass base of support for Hamas,
it no longer tolerated extremism in any form. The
economic costs of Hamass military operations and
terrorist attacks became too high in an eroding
socioeconomic environment, and widespread popular opposition to such attacks played an important
role in ending them. The defection of younger
Hamas cadres, disillusioned by the failure of their
leadership to achieve any meaningful political
change, further contributed to Hamass decline, as
did the absence of any alternative political channels
of expression. Similarly, the Islamic political sector
was weakened by the PAs successful co-optation of
some parts of that sector in newly established
Islamic parties or groups (for example, the National
Islamic Salvation Party, the National Movement for
Change, and the Islamic Struggle Movement) that
were controlled by the PA. Apparently, no relations
existed between these groups and Hamas (or the
Islamic Jihad). Another factor that contributed to
Hamass internal malaise was growing popular alienation from politicsperhaps especially political
Islamin favor of cultural and religious practices.
Moreover, with the end of the Intifada and the
initiation of the Oslo peace process, the resistance
component of the Palestinian struggleso critical
to Hamass political thinking and actionwas
undermined. This had direct repercussions for
Hamass social theory and practice, which were
largely if not wholly developed and shaped during
the uprising. For Hamas, social and political action
are inextricably linked. With the removal of the
resistance/opposition component from Palestinian
political imperatives, what role, at least one that
might be acceptable to most Palestinians, was left
for Hamas? The resulting problem confronting
Hamas (and the Islamic movement generally) was
fundamentally one of survival.

Hamas and the Transformation(s) of Political Islam in Palestine 15

In the two- to three-year period before the second

In response, there was a steady shift in emphaIntifida, Hamas was no longer prominently or consis, both ideologically and strategically, to the social
sistently calling for political or military action against
sector of the Islamic movement, which had always
the occupation, but was instead shifting its attention
been a critical component of that movement, proto social works and the propagation of Islamic valviding a range of important services and doing so
ues and religious practice. According to a key Hamas
effectively. This shift was a search for accommodaofficial interviewed at the time, Increasingly, Hamas
tion and consensus within the status quo; it also
represents religion and an Islamic way of life, not
reflected the need for Islamists to adjust to the conpolitical violence. Concomitant with this shift
ditions of the country in which they lived. Strategitoward the sociocultural was a shift in certain terms
cally, Hamas, and the Islamic movement generally,
and ideas, notably a growing acceptance of civil sociattempted to carve out public space in which they
ety as a conceptof a society where Islamic and
could operate without too much harassment from
Islamist institutions functioned as part of an intethe Israeli or Palestinian authorities, and provide
grated whole with their secular counterparts.
much-needed services to an increasingly needy
The definition of the threats facing Palestinian
population through a well-developed institutional
society also changed. These threats were no longer
infrastructure. In this way the Islamists would
confined to political or military attacks (by Israel and
maintain their popular base of support.
the PA) against Palestinian resources but also
Did direct ties exist between Islamic politicalmilitary and social institutions? The debate over
included cultural aggression against Palestinian valthe answer has been heated since the founding
ues, beliefs, and practices. Defeating the occupier
of Hamas. Convenbecame a matter of
tional wisdom holds
cultural preservaA significant part of the Hamas leadership
that Hamas controls
tion, building a
all Islamic social
moral consensus
now believes it is in a position to fill any vacuum
institutions and uses
created by the destruction of the Palestinian Authority and Islamic value
them for political
system as well as
or perhaps displace it altogether.
indoctrination and
political and milimilitary recruitment.
tary power. Hence,
While a detailed discussion of these interrelationthe struggle was not for power per se but for definships is beyond the scope of this article, they clearly
ing new social arrangements and appropriate cultural
were not always as routine and assured as is comand institutional models that would meet real social
monly believednor as evil where they did exist.
needs, and do so without violence. The idea was not
Some institutions claimed no political links at all. It
to create an Islamic society but one that was more
cannot be denied, however, that the work of Islamic
Islamic, as a form of protection against all forms of
social institutions, whether aligned or nonaligned,
aggression. In so doing, the Islamic movement was
did bolster Hamass position during the first Intifada.
creating a discourse of empowerment despite the
In the final analysis, more important than the exisretreat of its long-dominant political sector.
tence of links was the work of these institutions and
Before Oslo, social action was historically focused
the services they provided.
on religious education through charitable societies,
Interestingly, many members of the Islamic
mosques, zakat (alms-giving) committees, health
political leadership did not view the nonaligned
clinics, relief organizations, orphanages, schools, and
sector or the growing dominance of the social secvarious clubs. The objective was to teach Islamic valtor as a problem. A senior Hamas official explained
ues and to embody them through practicethat is,
it this way: Everyone who is religious is Hamas
the provision of social services. Recipients were
and anyone who teaches Islamic values furthers
largely the poor and working classes. The Islamists
Hamass goals. Thus, the organic interconnection
gained a reputation for honesty and integrity in the
between political and social action in Hamass ideway they conducted themselves, especially when
ology meant that the expansion of the social sector
compared to the PLO. However, and perhaps most
served the movements objectives even if social
important, the shift to social services represented
institutions were nonaffiliated. Hence, the retreat
more than a return to Islamist and Islamic roots in the
from the political sphere was pragmatic and
Muslim Brotherhood (the parent organization of
accompanied by a need to rediscover Islam and its
Hamas, which emerged in the West Bank and Gaza in
relevance to society.
the 1970s as a social and cultural movement, abstain-

16 CURRENT HISTORY January 2003

network. This included 4 Islamic banks with more

ing from any political or military action against the
than 20 branches in the occupied territories, Islamic
occupation); it was accompanied by entry into seeminvestment houses, and a range of business enteringly new areas of social activity or the expansion of
prises. Furthermore, Hamas most likely had no conactivity in pre-existing areas that went beyond the tratrol, direct or even indirect, over certain kinds of
ditional boundaries of religious education and prosIslamic economic institutions (such as those in bankelytizing that had characterized the social work of the
ing and finance), given its own limited organizational
Muslim Brotherhood. This allowed the Islamists entry
structure and the tight regulation of such activities
to, and legitimation by, the existing order, which they
by government agencies. In all these cases, Islamic
apparently were seeking, or at least accepted.
institutions were working with and were regulated
Although social action has a political and revoluby the appropriate Palestinian ministries and agentionary purpose in Hamass political ideology, Islamic
cies and in many cases had what appeared to be good
social activism, as it was evolving in the Oslo conworking relationships with the governmental sector.
text, was becoming increasingly incorporated within
Arguably, these expanded or new areas of Islamic
the mainstream (which, of course, was one way the
social activity represented the normalization, instiruling authority controlled the Islamic sector, but it
tutionalization, and professionalization of the Islamic
worked to the advantage of both; by September 2000
sector in the public curriculum, the system of healthapproximately 10 to 40 percent of all social institucare delivery, and banking and finance. At the same
tions in the West Bank and Gaza were Islamic,
time, the Islamic sector
according to official and
was not advancing a polprivate sources). Some of
icy of isolation but was
the clearest examples of
As for the PalestinianIsraeli conflict,
calling for greater accomthis dynamic were in
the greatest threat to peace is not extremism modation and cooperaeducation, health, and
Islamic or secularbut the context
tion with local, national,
and international actors,
In education, Islamic
that produces and nurtures it: occupation.
including certain correkindergartens, reputed
sponding professional
centers of intense politiinstitutions in Israel. In one healthcare institution in
cal proselytizing, taught a standard curriculum that
Gaza, which was considered Hamas since some
was approved by the Palestinian Ministry of Edumembers of its management team were political supcation. The same applied to new Islamic schools at
porters of the organization, the medical director
the elementary (and potentially secondary) school
proudly described a training program inside Israel to
level. Interestingly, many but not all Islamic
which he sent some of his staff. In all likelihood, this
schools taught a religious curriculum, which in a
decision could not have been taken without the congrowing number of cases was also standardized,
sent of the Islamic political leadership. This position
regulated, and approved by the Ministry of Educaadvocating greater social (and political?) integration
tion. In fact, the Islamic movement appears to have
with non-Islamic actors, both internal and external,
strengthened its presence in the education sector.
appeared widespread among officials in the Islamic
According to the Ministry of Education, 65 percent
social sector and was the stated position of some
of all Gazan educational institutions below the secmembers of the political leadership.
ondary level were Islamic (a percentage that has in
The shift to social action, to new forms of social
all likelihood increased).
engagement, and to the normalization and instituOther examples were found in the healthcare
tionalization of the Islamic and Islamist agendas
sector with the emergence of tertiary and highly
during the Oslo period represented an important
specialized medical care in Islamic facilities. One of
change within the Islamist movement. Hamas or its
the most sophisticated hospitals in the West Bank
successors seemed to be slowly moving away from
and Gaza is in Hebron; it was founded, administhe political extreme toward a more centrist positered, and financed by the Islamic and Islamist leadtion, trying to place itself between the corruption
ership. And a highly respected (by the Palestinian
of the PA and its donor-linked development projects
medical establishment) rehabilitation and treatment
center for acute spinal cord injuries is an Islamic
and violent Islamic militants and the impossibilities
facility in Gaza.
they came to represent. Islamists perhaps were tryInitiatives also were taking place in the economic
ing to limit the arbitrary political power of the PA
sector with the establishment of an Islamic banking
not through political or military confrontation,

Hamas and the Transformation(s) of Political Islam in Palestine 17

which had failed and was costly, but through mobilizing people at the sociocultural level and allowing
the social part of the movement to define, pragmatically and nonviolently, the Islamic and Islamist
agenda for some time to come. Although it was not
smooth or quick, the transformation from militancy
to accommodation was taking place.


The start of the second Palestinian Intifada on
September 28, 2000, coupled with the impact of
September 11, dramatically changed the environment in the West Bank and Gaza.5 Preexisting political arrangements have been severely disrupted,
economic conditions have deteriorated, and key
social structures and mediatory institutions have
weakened. Within this context of desperation and
hopelessness, the Islamist opposition, notably
Hamas, has reasserted itself.
Several political factors have contributed to the
reascendance of the Islamists. Among the most
important is the abnegation of any leadership or
command role by the PA during the uprising, and
the emergence of a younger generation of more
militant Fatah cadres who assumed leadership of
the uprising early on. The resulting militarization
of the Intifada not only marginalized the role of
Palestinian civil society, but discredited and
eclipsed the function of the older generation of
PA/PLO elites. Fatah, however, has not been able to
exert control over the PA, the Islamists, or other factions, partly because of its own internal divisions.
The internal political splits within the Palestinian
national movement and the strengthening of armed
and cross-factional militias seeking political power
and an end to occupation through violent confrontation, coupled with the overall militarization
of the uprising, created the time and space for
Hamas to rebuild its political-military infrastructure and pursue a form of militancy that went
beyond Fatahs (which confined operations to the
occupied territories). By attacking civilian targets
inside Israela strategy subsequently followed by
Fatah and othersHamas not only succeeded in
gaining support from an increasingly desperate
population, it also undermined the PAwhich was
blamed for the attacksand the diplomatic initiatives it was pursuing.
5Some points in this section are raised and discussed in
greater detail in Mouin Rabbani and Sara Roy, Palestinian
Politics and September 11th: Critical Changes in Policy and
Structure, Middle East Policy, December 2002; and Mouin
Rabbani, The Costs of Chaos in Palestine, ms., 2002.

Other factors contributing to the reemergence and

strengthening of the Islamists include: the internal
political marginalization of Yasir Arafat and the growing international isolation of the Palestinian leadership, which was later transformed into an explicit
attempt by Israel and the United States at regime
change; the politico-military campaign against the
Palestinian Authority, which has resulted in the largescale destruction of its institutional infrastructure
including its security forces and leadership/command
structureand the immobilization of the PA as a
political institution and administrative apparatus; the
absence of a common approach to the conflict and a
coherent strategy of resistance, which reflect the lack
of a unifying national liberation movement; the
growing decentralization of Palestinian politics and
rising political fragmentation, where central authority steadily ceded to local control; the implementation of (sometimes) conflicting political strategies by
different factions (the PAs eroding political/diplomatic
track, Fatahs war of attrition, and the Islamists larger
war) that perpetuate organizational chaos politically;
the acceptance, especially by the United States, of
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharons agenda, which
aims to eliminate the PA and preclude the establishment of a Palestinian state through continued Israeli
settlement expansion, land expropriation, and economic dispossession; the failure of the United States
to pursue seriously a political resolution of the conflict; and the absence of any credible prospect for a
meaningful political settlement.
These factors have not only catalyzed the
Islamist factions and their radicalization, but have
resulted in a balance of power that could slowly
shift in their favor. This potential shift is underlined
by three dynamics: changing popular sentiment, the
PA/nationalistIslamist relationship, and Israeli policy toward the Islamist opposition.
The shift in popular sentiment
Historically, popular support for Hamas and
other Islamist factions was strongest in the perceived absence of political progress. During the
Oslo period, when Palestinians were hopeful of a
political settlement, support for Hamasnever substantialwaned, but when prospects dimmed, as
they did after the failed Camp David summit in July
2000, support rose, albeit incrementally. Before the
Intifada, political despair did not translate into support for the Islamists but into losses for the nationalists. After Camp David, for example, Palestinian
analyst Khalil Shikaki found that support for Arafat
dropped to 47 percent from its peak of 65 percent

18 CURRENT HISTORY January 2003

in 1996, and support for Fatah declined to 37 percent after having reached an unprecedented 55 percent in 1996 (when Palestinian support for the
peace process reached 80 percent and support for
violent attacks against Israeli targets dropped to 20
percent). Almost one year into the current Intifada,
Arafats popularity plummeted to 33 percent and
Fatahs to 29 percent.
Popular desertion of the secular nationalist forces
did not translate into support for the Islamists;
instead, people remained uncommitted (the popularity of the Islamists rose only from 15 percent in
1996 to 17 percent in 2000). This changed during
the Intifada, however, when loyalties began to shift
to the Islamists in the context of growing desperation
and political failure. According to Shikaki, by July
2001 the Islamist factions claimed 27 percent of
polled support, which represented an 80 percent
increase from 1996. Furthermore, during this period,
support for the opposition, both Islamist and nationalist, reached 31 percent, which exceeded that of
Fatah and its associates at 30 percent. Yet, simultaneously, a December 25, 2001 poll by the Center for
Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah showed that
while 61 percent of Palestinians believed that armed
confrontations with Israel had helped achieve
national rights where negotiations had failed, 71 percent supported an immediate return to negotiations
and 73 percent supported reconciliation with the
Israelis after the establishment of a Palestinian state
recognized by Israel. A year later, in the context of
dramatic economic decline and political disintegration, a Bir Zeit University poll revealed that 42 percent of Palestinians favored an Islamic state, a finding
that was totally unprecedented.
Internal dynamics
With the Intifada, the Palestinian political environment underwent dramatic changes. First was the
restoration of the resistance component and militancy to the Palestinian struggle, embraced by all factions, not just the Islamist opposition. Second was
the attempt by the nationalist forces to accommodate
the demands of the Islamists for the sake of maintaining national unity and an internal political consensus. Third was the effort by the Islamists to
normalize their relationship with the PA, without conceding to its political conditions.
For the PA, compromise meant remaining silent on
calls for international protection, the application of
the Geneva Conventions, and cooperation with the
Israeli peace movement, all of which the Islamists
reject. For the nationalist factions, compromise also

meant bringing the Islamists into an institutional

alliance of sorts to preclude the formation of parallel
Islamist institutions and strike forces, which happened during the first Intifada. For the Islamists,
compromise was cooperating with the nationalist
forces in a military campaign against the occupationcoordination in the field, but not in politics.
As such, the Islamists were granted de facto if not de
jure veto power in political decision-making. The
establishment early in the Intifada of the National
and Islamic Forces (NIF)a broad coalition of 14
political factions and civic organizations whose
mandate is coordinating the uprisingwas one
practical expression of this cooperation. Because the
PA rejects the NIFs supervisory role, the factions
maintain they are not bound by NIF decisions, limiting the NIFs effectiveness.
The result has been uneven and tendentious.
While there have been several examples of cooperation and coordinationthe PAs release of jailed
Islamic activists, Hamass support of Arafat during
the siege of his compound by Israeli forces, and
cease-fire agreements between Hamas and the PA
tensions remain high and conflicts intense. For
example, in the absence of a common political program (itself the result of Arafats failure to institutionalize a political relationship between the PA and
the factions and to provide them with a viable
decision-making role), factions compete and undermine each other, contributing to greater organizational chaos within the domestic political
environment. And while the relationship between
the PA and the nationalist and Islamist factions is
complex, defying simplistic notions of strategic
control or open opposition, the Palestinian Authority cannot and will not exercise real authority over
them in the absence of meaningful political
prospects. Within this maelstrom, Hamas and other
militant factions conduct suicide-bombing attacks
in Israeli citiesactions in opposition to official PA
policy but for which the PA is held accountable, and
to which Israel responds with devastating results.
With the PA weakened by Israeli actions, Hamas
can weaken it further to the point where a significant
part of the Hamas leadership now believes it is in a
position to fill any vacuum created by the destruction
of the Palestinian Authorityor perhaps displace it
altogether. While it is impossible to predict whether
this will occur, Hamass role clearly is gaining importance. In early September 2002, before Israels siege
of Arafats compound later that month, the United
States held indirect contacts with senior Hamas officials and apparently promised them that, in exchange

Hamas and the Transformation(s) of Political Islam in Palestine 19


THE RENEWED DOMINANCE of the Islamic political and

military sectors has not eclipsed the importance or
the role of the social. Given the dire economic conditions in the West Bank and Gazawith unemployment and poverty rates approaching 60 percent
and 70 percent, respectivelyand the eroded
capacity of the PA to deliver basic social services,
Islamic social organizations have become an
increasingly important part of the Palestinian social
welfare system. As during the Oslo period, they are
providing services the PA is unable to provide and
doing so with the tacit, if not explicit, support of
the authorities. Indeed, the periodic closing of
Islamic charities and other social institutions for
political reasons is often temporary because without their services a vacuum would result, which the
PA is clearly incapable of filling. As such, there
appears to be no organized PA campaign against
them. This has further strengthened the institutionalization and normalization of Islamic organizations within the Palestinian status quo.
In what appears to be a new dynamic, Islamic
institutions, unlike their secular civic counterpartswhich are also engaged in activities such
*I would like to thank Mouin Rabbani, who provided many
of the details cited in this section.

for their agreement to become part of a secular,

democratic unity government in a new Palestinian
state (a discussion that Hamas was already conducting with Fatah, and which no doubt contributed to
the six-week lull in suicide bombingsa lull during
which at least 80 Palestinians were killed), the United
States would pressure Israeli officials to end their policy of targeted assassinations and arrests of Hamas
officials. The American envoy engaged in the talks
explained that while he could not guarantee Israeli
acceptance, he did indicate that the United States welcomed Hamass decision to become a legitimate part
of the political process. The United States clearly
6Mark Perry, Israeli Offensive Disrupts USHamas Contacts, Palestine Report, October 9, 2002 <
media/report/02/Oct/2b.htm>. A senior American diplomat
indicated that the United States understood that [t]here is a
difference between Hamas and, say, the Iranian mullahs. The
one tradition is nationalist and revolutionary, the other is clerical and religious. We know the difference. We know who the
honest actors are. We dont happen to like Hamas tactics, but
we know theres a world of difference between what they want
and what, say, Mullah Omar wants.

as human rights, advocacy, and political reform

that highlight the PAs deficienciesdo not challenge the PAs work or methods but rather complement it. While it is difficult to know what, if
anything, this complementarity means, it does
suggest the extension, in some form, of the
Islamists search for accommodation that defined
their relations with the Palestinian Authority
before the Intifada. This, of course, could change if
relations between Hamas and the PA deteriorate
further in the months ahead.
In contrast to the PA, there has been an international effort since the September 11 attacks on the
United States to restrict the activities of the Islamic
social sector based on the belief that they contribute
to the political appeal and growth of Hamas. However, it is unclear whether Islamic social organizations in the reoccupied West Bank in particular are
being closed or dismantled by Israel for the same
reason, or whether Israel is allowing these institutions to function as part of a possible strategy of
eliminating a secular alternative. Another important question concerns internal relations between
the Islamic social and political sectors. If Hamas
assumes a greater political role with the PAs demise,
what if anything is Hamas doing with Islamic institutions to prepare for this scenario, and how would
the role of Islamic organizations change should
such a scenario be realized?*
S. R.
also endorsed HamasFatah talks. Reportedly, Hamas
officials were pleased by these signals and by United
States indications that it would welcome Hamass
political participation.6
Israeli policy and the Islamist opposition
United StatesHamas contactsof which Israel
was fully awareended when the Israeli army
arrested a politically moderate Hamas official in
Ramallah on September 9, which Hamas interpreted
as a deliberate attempt by the Sharon government to
undermine its exchange with the Americans. A few
days later, Israel launched an attack in Rafah that
killed nine Palestinians, including civilians. Predictably, a suicide bomber staged an attack on a bus
in Tel Aviv on September 19, killing six people. This
was followed by Israels siege of the presidential compound in Ramallah. Under United States pressure,
Sharon ordered an end to the operation shortly after.
Other Hamas-PA cease-fires have been undermined by Israeli attacks. Alex Fishman, the security
commentator for the right-of-center Yediot Achronot,
Israels largest mass-circulation newspaper, detailed

20 CURRENT HISTORY January 2003

in the November 25, 2001 issue of the newspaper

how the assassination that November of Mahmud
Abu Hanud, a key Hamas figure, shattered a Hamas
promise not to carry out suicide bombings inside
Israel: Whoever gave the green light to this act of
liquidation knew full well that he was thereby shattering in one blow the gentlemans agreement
between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority;
under that agreement, Hamas was to avoid in the
near future suicide bombings inside the Green Line
[Israels pre-1967 borders] of the kind perpetrated
at the Dolphinarium [a discotheque in Tel Aviv].
Such an agreement did exist, even if neither the
PA nor Hamas would admit it in public. It is a fact
that, while the security services did accumulate
repeated warnings of planned Hamas terrorist
attacks within the Green Line, these did not materialize. That cannot be attributed solely to the
Shabaks [the General Security Services] impressive
success in intercepting the suicide bombers and
their controllers. Rather, the respective leaderships
of the PA and Hamas came to the understanding that
it would be better not to play into Israels hands by
mass attacks on its population centers.
This understanding was, however, shattered by
the assassination the day before yesterdayand
whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu
Hanud knew in advance that that would be the
price. The subject was extensively discussed both
by Israels military echelon and its political one
before it was decided to carry out the liquidation.
On December 1 and 2 came the Hamas bombings in Jerusalems Zion Square and of a bus in
Haifa in which 25 Israelis were killed, many of
them children.
In July 2002, with the help of European diplomats, the Fatah tanzimas opposed to the PAand
Hamas had reached an understanding that all attacks
inside Israel would stop, and they were preparing to
issue a formal statement to that effect on July 22.7
Hamass spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin,
announced publicly that Hamas was considering a
cease-fire if Israel withdrew its troops from recently
reoccupied Palestinian population centers. Just 90
minutes before the proclamation was to be
announced, the Israeli authorities bombed the Gaza
apartment of Hamas military wing leader Sheikh
Salah Shehada, killing him and 16 others, including
11 children. More Hamas suicide bombings in Israel
7The tanzim is an armed militia consisting of Fatah street
cadre/activists and elements of the PAs Preventative Security
Force that has undertaken many military operations.

followed. On November 26, 2002, Israeli helicopters

targeted and killed the commanders of the military
wings of Hamas and the Al Aqsa Brigades in the
Jenin refugee camp. Both factions promised to carry
out large-scale attacks inside Israel in revenge.
Suicide bombings are horrific and criminal but
what do these examples say about the policies of
the Sharon government? The argument has been
made that Sharons policies aim to undermine any
possibility of a political settlement, which would
involve compromises his government is unwilling
to make, preferring instead a decisive military victory and long-term interim arrangements dictated
by Israel, no matter the cost. Yet, Israels policies
toward the Islamist opposition may have another
dimension. Some analysts maintain that while
Hamas leaders are being targeted, Israel is simultaneously pursuing its old strategy of promoting
Hamas over the secular nationalist factions as a way
of ensuring the ultimate demise of the PA, and as an
effort to extinguish Palestinian nationalism once
and for all. In fact, some allies of Arafat accuse
Hamas of being in tacit alliance with Israel. In so
doing, the argument continues, Israel creates a justification for maintaining the occupation since it
will deal with Palestinians only as militant radicals
and not on the basis of national rights or as a legitimate part of a political process. But then what?


While an Islamist alternative still remains unacceptable to most Palestinians, the Islamists, notably
Hamas, increasingly have become a vocal and institutionalized part of the Palestinian political landscape;
as such, they will need to be incorporated intonot
marginalized fromany future political arrangement.
Despite its militant extremism, the Islamist movement
has shown that it can be pragmatic.
The political transformations of Hamas and the
Islamic movement generally derive from a combination of internal and external factors that have only
been touched on here. As for the PalestinianIsraeli
conflict, the greatest threat to peace is not
extremismIslamic or secularbut the context
that produces and nurtures it: occupation. The fundamental problem among Palestinians is that the
majority of people have no options, power, or future.
Radical Islam emerged not because people were
opposed to political and economic change but
because they were continuously denied it. Palestinians are a secular people seeking their political rights
and national liberation, but this could change if their
misery deepens and their possibilities end.